9 Investigates

Restraint device nicknamed ‘The Devil’s Chair’ used in jails across Central Florida: Why critics want it banned

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — As law enforcement agencies across the country take a closer look at their use-of-force policies, a death inside the Brevard County Jail is renewing concern about the use of controversial restraint chairs.

Critics have called those devices “The Devil’s Chair,” and they’ve been linked to dozens of in-custody deaths around the country. Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray learned, locally, the rules on when and how to use them vary from county to county.

At a rally in Titusville last month, protesters called for the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office to release video, taken from inside the jail, from the December 2018 day that 38-year-old Gregory Edwards was put into a restraint chair while being booked, and then found unresponsive.

READ: Family members, prison reform advocates rally for furloughs for Florida inmates amid COVID-19 concerns

“When my daughter called me, and said he has been arrested, I said he’ll be fine,” Edwards’ mother-in-law, Margarita said. “Those were my words, ‘he’ll be fine.’ They will make sure he will get the care he needs.”

An internal affairs investigation cleared Brevard deputies of any excessive force, but the sheriff will not release the video from inside the jail, citing security exemptions and concerns.

Body camera video captured the moments of Edwards’ arrest on battery charges in a West Melbourne Walmart parking lot. His then-pregnant wife told West Melbourne Police he was a combat medic with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

READ: ‘He didn’t want to die in prison’: Families raise concerns about inmates being exposed to COVID-19

Edwards was combative when taken to jail, leading him to being pepper-sprayed, tased and then put into a restraint chair with a spit hood during booking, according to an internal affairs investigation.

Researchers say that alone can be a deadly combination, made worse by the use of drugs. Edwards’ wife later told investigators he had been huffing in the days before his arrest.

“Their body and heart rate is at an agitated state,” Amnesty International researcher Justin Mazzola said. “So by putting them in the restraint chairs after all that excitement and reactions to those uses of force it can lead to adverse reactions, or even death.”

Amnesty International has been calling for national guidelines on the use of restraint chairs since the early 2000s, following a string of deaths. The UN Committee Against Torture also recommended abolishing their use in the U.S.

READ: Lake County inmate dies after ‘use of force’ incident involving officer, Department of Corrections says

“You can have multiple jurisdictions [doing something different],” Mazzola said. “The state level is doing something, but at a county or local level, they’re doing something opposite.”

9 Investigates found that’s true in Florida. Though state prisons haven’t used the chairs to restrain inmates for more than a decade, Central Florida jails do.

Both Orange and Lake County’s jails require constant supervision of inmates in the chair, but in Volusia, Osceola and Seminole’s jails, inmates are only required to be checked every 15 minutes. 

Volusia’s jail requires a spit hood to be used in conjunction with the chair, but Seminole’s policy states not to use a spit hood on any inmate who has been hit with pepper spray.

In Brevard, policy dictates direct observation for the first 30 minutes. According to an internal affairs investigation, Edwards was in the chair for approximately 16 minutes before he was found to be unresponsive.

Edwards’ official cause of death was deemed “excited delirium” by the medical examiner. Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey recently forwarded the internal affairs investigation to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for another look, but he has repeatedly said he will not release the video from inside the jail due to security reasons.

Meanwhile, Osceola County jail leaders tell 9 Investigates that they are reviewing policies now to determine whether to require constant supervision when using a restraint chair.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.